At the Fifth Summit of the Americas last month, President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela seemed to be everywhere. The New York Times illustrated its story on the meeting with a front-page photograph of Chávez in smiling, relaxed conversation with President Barack Obama. Despite an exchange of insults in the weeks before the summit, both leaders appeared to be enjoying one another’s company. During the official lunch, Chávez presented Obama with a book by Uruguayan author and journalist Eduardo Galeano. That made big news in Latin America, where Galeano is a populist hero, famed for his epigrams, many of them critical of the United States.

The summit took place in Port of Spain, the capital of Trinidad and Tobago, and Obama seemed predestined for success. Over the past eight years, Latin American leaders had grown weary of President George W. Bush’s endless repetitions of the Washington Consensus: unfettered capitalism, privatization of state-owned enterprises, and absolute free trade. To most of the hemisphere’s democratic leaders, the Washington Consensus had come to represent a moribund, corrupt alliance of bankers, businessmen, politicians, and bureaucrats bent on enriching themselves. It had undermined people’s faith in democratic government, and concentrated political and economic power in the hands of a few, making Latin America a byword for economic inequality.

In contrast, Obama’s performance radiated grace, style, and intelligence. He sat through all the deliberations, listening attentively to friends and adversaries alike. When it was his turn to speak, he outlined a new vision of a Western Hemisphere of equal partners, and did so with elegant oratory—an art form highly valued by Latin American politicians. Only once did he show frustration. Following a long, rude, and pointless harangue by Nicaragua’s president, Daniel Ortega, he responded by thanking Ortega for not blaming him personally for things that happened “when I was four years old,” and then repeated his own intention to launch a new chapter in hemispheric relations, calling for “a new partnership, with no senior or junior partners, working together for shared prosperity.” He had come to the summit, he said, not to debate the past but to talk about the future. (When asked later what he thought of Ortega’s speech, he replied: “It was fifty minutes long. That’s what I thought.”)

Obama infused the summit with a sense of cordiality and common purpose that had disappeared from inter-American relations for decades. So persuasive was he that many Latino commentators predict an entirely new era in Washington’s dealings with Latin America. But style is one thing, substance another. For a change, this summit’s discussions focused on energy security, environmental sustainability, and human prosperity rather than on old disputes. Still, Obama’s model for a new cooperative effort went largely undefined.

To many at the summit, Obama’s talk of “Equal Partners” echoed Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy. At the heart of that initiative was the doctrine of nonintervention, and the right of each member state to sovereignty and national territorial integrity. Yet every nation bordering the Caribbean has its own story to tell about U.S. interference in its internal affairs. The most flagrant example is Washington’s ongoing treatment of Cuba. The U.S. embargo of Havana was not on the summit’s agenda, nor, at U.S. insistence, had Cuba been invited to the meeting. But the Castros—Fidel and Raúl—seemed to be unseen guests at every gathering, an uninvited duo to whom many presidents addressed their remarks. For weeks leading up to the summit, speculation focused on how it might fall apart over Latin Americans’ determination to re-admit Cuba to the Organization of American States (OAS), the hundred-year-old hemispheric association that expelled Cuba in 1962. Obama’s timely decision before the summit to relax U.S. restrictions on visas for Cuban-Americans with relatives on the island allowed the United States to head off a threatened breakdown at the summit.

Nearly fifty years have passed since the United States has pursued realistic goals for Cuban-American relations. The 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion failed to overthrow Fidel Castro, so Washington set out to accomplish by economic strangulation what it had failed to do through a frontal attack. But its clumsy mix of covert action and inept boycott succeeded primarily in bringing shame on the United States and turning Fidel Castro into a folk hero throughout Latin America.

In 1962, the United States tried to complete Cuba’s pariah status by expelling the Castro government from the OAS. That initiative met with fierce resistance from Mexico and most of the major countries of Latin America. It was only after weeks of diplomatic pressure and the outright bribe of a new airport for Haiti that the Kennedy administration scraped up the fourteen votes necessary to suspend Cuba’s OAS membership. Forty-seven years later, Cuba is still excluded, defeating the purpose for which the OAS was founded: to create a system for the peaceful settlement of regional disputes.

Lula da Silva, president of Brazil, a key reformist leader and Latin America’s most influential statesman, has urged Obama to put an end to the Cuba blockade and to build a “stronger, bolder relationship with Latin America.” In diplomatic language, Lula has made it clear that a shift on Cuba is a necessary first step if Obama wishes to rekindle Latin America’s faith in Washington’s ability to lead.

Latin America’s chief diplomat, José Miguel Insulza, secretary general of the OAS, points out that thirty-four OAS member states enjoy normal diplomatic relations with Cuba, while only one does not; it is therefore “absurd,” he says, that no dialogue can take place on how to end Cuba’s suspension from the OAS. A certain formality is essential for the effective conduct of foreign relations, especially relations with Latin Americans, who like to operate through multilateral arrangements. More than simply a bilateral concern between Washington and Havana, Cuba’s status is a pressing issue regionally. Secretary General Insulza was right to suggest that the OAS could work with the United States and the other countries of the hemisphere to forge common policies on Cuba.

But at some point Washington will have to act unilaterally to lift the embargo and other restrictions on Cuba. To disentangle all the strands of a half-century-old policy will be a daunting task, one that will have to include placating domestic constituencies and repealing longstanding congressional legislation. So a multilateral approach has much to recommend it, and Secretary General Insulza’s proposal to jump-start the reconciliation process should not be ignored.

Of course, the OAS cannot impose a new arrangement on Cuba. Delicate negotiations will be required. Because representative democracy is now a condition for OAS membership, any diplomatic parleys with Cuba will inevitably prove long and complicated. But, as a practical matter, the extended presence of an OAS diplomatic team in Cuba would require the establishment of an OAS headquarters there. A painless way for the Obama administration to signal its promised fresh approach to Cuba would be to cooperate in the opening of such an OAS office. This would not only mark the end of decades of Washington intransigence; it would also help us find out whether the Castro government is really open to democratic change. In diplomacy, few things unfold as planned, but one thing is certain: It would prove easier for Raúl Castro to say yes to an OAS commission than to submit to direct pressures from Washington.

At the summit, President Obama seemed to grasp the fact that the security of the United States is inextricably connected to the stability of the independent nations of Latin America. By stepping back and embracing the opportunity offered by the OAS on Cuba, his administration can signal an end to the self-defeating interventionist policies of the past and begin to rebuild the regional partnership of democratic nations working together for the common good.


Read more: Letters, June 19 & August 14, 2009

Robert E. White, a former United States ambassador to El Salvador and Paraguay, is president of the Center for International Policy.
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Published in the 2009-05-22 issue: View Contents
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